Spanish Flu Epidemic

I have not yet written a piece on the First World War, which was raging at this time 100 years ago. What I would like to write about today is one of the major factors that brought the war to an end: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 (January 1918-December 1920). It was an H1N1 avian flu that mutated into affecting human beings.

The origin of the disease cannot for certain be identified, but it is believed that it started in China, and was brought over by almost 100,000 Chinese laborers sent to France to support the Allied armies. The ravages of war, starvation, lack of medical care, high stress and fear reducing immune systems, and millions of soldiers packed together in trenches caused the illness to spread rapidly.

At the time, it was called the Wrath of God, and terrified everyone. The disease touched almost every community on earth, killing people in the Arctic and even remote Pacific islands.

It was nicknamed the Spanish Flu because Spain, not a participate in the war, was one of the first countries to announce the outbreak. Both the Allies and Central Powers heavily censored their press throughout the war, which led to a delayed reaction to the outbreak and added millions to the death toll.

As a comparison of its effect, the nations of the world had mobilized 70,000,000 soldiers, and in the process killed 10,000,000 troops and 8,000,000 civilians, a third by disease, in over 4 years. The flu outbreak killed 50,000,000 to 100,000,000 people in around six months!

The outbreak was unusual in that healthy young people died far more than the usual very young or very old. This was due to the disease causing a cytokine storm in the bodies of its victims. A cytokine storm is when the body defenses overreact, flooding the system with white blood cells, causing high fever, swelling and redness, extreme fatigue and nausea. The body actually kills itself by accident. Those with weakened immune systems were not able to produce this effect and survived, but often with the life damaging effects of any severe flu.

Medicine at that time was overwhelmed, and as still happens today, many people gave themselves over to quackery in a desperate attempt to find a cure. Massive doses of aspirin were often used, killing the patient and ending their flu troubles.

This worldwide epidemic was just another reason for war exhausted nations to seek peace, and the Central Powers gave in in November 1918.

After 1918, the number of deaths rapidly decreased, as doctors got better at fighting the disease, and the virus mutated into less harmful strains.

The war, epidemic, and peace treaty caused a world wide backlash against the norms of society, having a far reaching influence on every aspect of human society. These results continue to affect us today. A similar event horizon would follow WWII.

This outbreak has been a favorite for various end of the world stories, ranging from Stephen King’s “The Stand” to movies like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “World War Z”.

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